For those looking for the one easy-to-use point-and-shoot compact that (almost) does it all, the DSC-H55 from Sony might just fit the bill. The headline spec is impressive: 14.1-megapixels effective resolution, a 10x optical zoom stretching from 25-250mm in 35mm terms, 3-inch LCD screen, plus 720p HD movies. Providing further enticement is the manufacturer's suggested retail price, which considering this is a Sony product is a fair £249.
And yet, holster that chequebook for a moment. We've seen a slew of big zoom compacts recently from Canon in the SX210 IS, Panasonic in its TZ series and Casio in the EX-H15. So aside from the fact that it should, like its rivals, prove just as adept at photographing landscape images as candid portraits, what else does the Sony offer to set it apart from the pack?
As expected given its manufacturer's longstanding reputation, the DSC-H55 feels solid, well made and its black body livery exudes the impression of sophistication, as do the Program and Manual exposure modes included on the top plate shooting dial, alongside the "auto everything" intelligent Auto option that recognises common scenes and subjects and switches camera settings accordingly for optimum results.
That broader focal range means that the camera is marginally chunkier than 3x or 4x zoom equivalents, but at overall dimensions of 102.9 x 57.7 x 28.9mm and a weight of 200g with card and battery inserted, it will still fit into a trouser or jacket pocket, if perhaps not quite as comfortably as said credit card sized 3x or 4x zoom model.
Also found on the top plate shooting mode dial are a pared down "easy" mode (this in addition to the already hand holding intelligent Auto), access to a smattering of scene modes including not one but two low light capture Twilight modes, while Sony's unique Sweep Panorama mode also gets a dedicated setting on the dial.
The latter feature shoots a burst of images as the user pans with the camera in the direction of the arrow provided on the 3-inch 230,400-dot resolution LCD screen, combining them automatically into one elongated frame. We managed on average to grab a 270° view of the scene before us - not something that can be achieved via conventional lens alone. The result therefore is not just closer to what your own eyes can take in, but there's the possibility to go beyond that. For landscapes and group shots it's ideal, even if the image quality for us more closely resembled a video grab than pin sharp photograph.
This being a Sony camera, and one aimed at the mass market rather than bearded enthusiast per se, Smile Shutter - the camera taking a photograph when it detects a grinning subject - and the ubiquitous Face Detection also feature.
With the camera powering up from cold in just under 2 seconds, the larger high performance G lens the H55 utilises - largely hidden within the body when inactive - does however provide good edge-to-edge sharpness when used more conventionally at its widest 25mm equivalent setting, and displays minimal barrel distortion. At this widest setting close ups are also possible at a minimum distance of 5cm from your subject.
In terms of overall sharpness this is a better performance than you'll get from conventional compacts at an equivalent setting; but again as we've noted at the outset there is already considerable competition in the H55's existing market sector. As expected the lens comes supported by anti shake - here Sony's Active SteadyShot mechanism, which is also deployed when filming video.
With this model Sony is again hedging its bets as regards compatible storage media, with the one card slot located adjacent to the battery (good for 310 shots from a full charge) at the camera base accepting both common use SD or higher capacity SDHC cards, plus the slightly smaller Memory Stick Pro Duo marketed solely by Sony. The practical issue here is that the two formats are of different sizes, so inserting and retrieving a Memory Stick from the wider SD-shaped slot is an unnecessarily fiddly process.
Though use of the conventional 4:3 ratio LCD dominates the H55's operation in the predictable absence of an optical viewfinder, Sony has provided a few buttons alongside, though they are small and again fiddly - the exception being the four-way directional control pad, used for tabbing through on-screen options and selecting them with a press of the unmarked button at its centre.
Also getting their own buttons are playback, delete and menu controls. Press the latter and rather than the screen filling with numerous folders and sub folders, key options are presented in an icon-led toolbar that runs down the left hand side of the screen. In here, when shooting in Program mode, the user has access to manually tweak focus options, white balance, light sensitivity, and even govern the sensitivity of the camera's ability to detect smiles - the shutter firing if it detects a slight rather than full grin for example.
It's here too that the Sony's Dynamic Range Optimiser can be deployed to retrieve lost shadow detail in those tricky exposures - so the results can end up lacking definition and looking a tad wishy-washy if the effect is too strong. So here the intensity of the feature can likewise be governed with a choice of "standard" or "plus" modes.
In terms of picture quality, we'll start with the negatives - which is to say visible barrel distortion at max wide-angle (though the H55 is by far not the worst offender) plus purple pixel fringing visible on close inspection between areas of high contrast. In terms of low light performance, by sticking at ISO 800 and below the intrusion of image noise is avoided entirely. Generally speaking exposures are even with colour erring on the side of natural rather than overly saturated.
The Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H55 is fairly priced, delivers sharply focused, evenly exposed images and provides the user with a broader degree of creative scope than most compacts with lesser zooms.
For our money though the Canon PowerShot SX210 IS delivers a more accurate colour performance and images are just as sharp, but is £100 more, whilst the Casio EX-H15 might not offer its design sophistication but does boast a wider feature set for the same price. Which is a way of saying that if the Cyber-shot DSC-H55 has piqued your interest there may be more suitable alternatives. There's nothing wrong with it, but Sweep Panorama aside, there's little here to set the imagination alight. "Capable but lacks flair" is the bottom line entry in this particular school report.